November 2006 - Against All Odds

Think your call center agents face a complex sales challenge? One of the most successful DR campaigns in history overcame obstacles that make others look tame.

By Jack Gordon

Imagine two different direct response campaigns for television and radio. The first targets upbeat, enthusiastic consumers. The commercials feature a hard offer and such compelling creative that eager buyers, who already know the price, dial the 800 number without hesitation and say simply: “I want it. Here’s my credit card information.” Operators at the call center need minimal training. They just take orders while the marketer coins money.

The second DR campaign targets people suffering from severe anxiety or depression. Their outlook on life is negative, to say the least, and they’re very skeptical of claims that anything can help solve their problems. They may not even believe they deserve any help. Some have to see or hear a commercial 20 times before they muster the energy or courage to pick up the phone. The only offer in the creative is for a free video. So when operators answer a call, they are talking to an anxious or depressed individual who is skeptically interested in a free tape or DVD. And what they’re talking about is a self-help course and follow-up programs that sell for an average of more than $400.

Which of those two campaigns would you guess has produced one of the most successful and longest-running TV infomercials in history and won the Electronic Retailing Association’s award as “Best Radio Campaign” in 2003 and 2005?

Yes, of course, it’s a trick question. The Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety Inc. (MWC) is an unusual direct response advertiser for several reasons. But an indispensable factor in MWC’s success has been a relentless, 10-year focus on getting the very delicate call-center piece right. “That’s what has made our business viable,” says MWC President David Bassett.

MWC’s co-founder and commercial spokesperson is Bassett’s wife, Lucinda. He says that the power of the commercials for MWC’s flagship product, a self-help course called Attacking Anxiety and Depression, springs from the fact that Lucinda Bassett “speaks from the perspective of the sufferer, which is totally different from what the medical community does.”

Lucinda’s life story, told in infomercials and MWC’s literature, as well as to Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters, is one of a 20-year battle with severe anxiety and depression. An alcoholic father rendered her childhood “chaotic.” As an anxious teenager, she developed eating disorders, headaches and stomach ailments. For a period in her 20s, Lucinda suffered heart palpitations and daily panic attacks. She was fearful, negative, obsessive and irrational. She worried that she was losing her mind. Lucinda visited doctors and psychiatrists, to no avail.

The turning point came in the early 1980s, when she turned on the “Today Show” and found a woman talking about agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. The woman described symptoms and personality characteristics that fit Lucinda perfectly. Encouraged by the revelation that “I wasn’t alone!” she ransacked libraries and bookstores for information and coping techniques. As Lucinda practiced techniques she learned, her condition improved dramatically.

In 1984, she and Dr. Phillip Fisher founded MWC to conduct therapy groups in Toledo, Ohio. (MWC now is headquartered in Oak Harbor, Ohio; the Bassetts live in Southern California.) By 1986, they were sponsoring outreach seminars at Holiday Inns, advertising the events in local newspapers. They created a self-help version of the therapy program, with videotapes and printed materials, for people to take away from the seminars.

The inspiration to film a long-form TV commercial came from watching a Tony Robbins infomercial in 1990, says David Bassett, who became president of MWC two years later. “We thought, ‘If we could do it like that, we could quit using hotel meeting rooms.’” MWC’s first infomercial, self-produced, aired in 1991.

As far as the technical aspects went, “we did everything wrong,” Bassett says of the initial program. For instance, “the phone number was burned into the show, so when we wanted to move to a call center, we couldn’t.” What was right about the show and its subsequent versions, however, was Lucinda. She felt a genuine calling for her mission, he says. Her sincerity and her message-”I was just like you, and if I could overcome this condition, you can too”-allowed her to connect with an audience that is very difficult to reach.

Bassett says the program now has aired for more than 700 consecutive weeks, making it second only (by four weeks) to one for the Carleton Sheets real estate investing course as the longest-running infomercial on television. In a 2002 survey by Forbes magazine, Lucinda Bassett ranked as the nation’s fourth most recognized TV pitchperson.

From 1991 to 1999, David Bassett says, MWC’s advertising consisted “virtually exclusively” of long-form TV advertising on national cable channels. The commercials included hard offers with prices disclosed. “As media rates climbed,” he says, “we went through a progression of offers: a one-pay, then a three-pay, then a five-pay.”

Even when viewers were responding to hard offers, handling inbound calls demanded unusual skills and care. People suffering from anxiety and depression often seek no treatment at all, Bassett says, and when they do, they usually get drugs, not therapy. Citing figures from the National Mental Health Association, MWC says that about 19 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a depressive disorder. Only about 20 percent of them seek any treatment at all, and of those, three-quarters see a primary-care physician rather than a mental-health professional.

Bassett says the average time spent with the primary-care doctor is seven minutes, which means that the only treatment they get is drug therapy. “Only 5 percent of them go to counseling, and of those, half go to only one session. And remember that 80 percent don’t know they have a treatable problem, and just suffer. So that’s who’s calling in to our phone lines.”

In 1996, Bassett says he was approached by InPulse Response Group, an inbound call center based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “They said, ‘We’ve got a better mousetrap for telemarketing,’” he remembers. InPulse proposed to use special, dedicated sales agents who would be specially trained to handle calls solely for MWC. Bassett credits those agents with extending the infomercial’s useful life span for three years.

By 1999, however, the model had stopped working. “Everyone who thought the product was worth [the then-current price of] around $300 had called,” Bassett says. “A lot of anxious people don’t think they’re worth that much.”

He credits two changes with saving the business. First, MWC added radio advertising to its mix. Working with media buying agency Marketing Architects of Minneapolis, “we figured out how to make 60-second radio work,” Bassett says. When people at the grocery store began recognizing Lucinda’s voice, but not her face, “that showed us the power of radio.” He says MWC has racked up 2 billion radio impressions per year since 1999. Radio now accounts for about 40 percent of the company’s advertising budget.

MWC soon added short-form TV spots, “leveraging lessons we learned in radio,” Bassett says. The major lesson-and the second dramatic change in strategy, soon applied to the infomercial as well-was to convert from a hard offer to a soft, lead-generation offer. All of MWC’s commercials stopped disclosing the price of the self-help program and began to offer only a free video.

Within three years, Bassett says, “our volume multiplied by a factor of 10. The lead-generation idea turned things around.” But it also placed even heavier demands on the call center, since everything now depended on sales agents’ ability to convert those soft leads.
That is when the InPulse agents dedicated solely to MWC really came into their own.

From the agent’s point of view, the role became entirely a sales job, as opposed to an order-taking job, says InPulse CEO Steve Pittendrigh. “[It's] not a sales job in the sense of, ‘We need to get these things out,’” he adds. “Because of the sensitivity around the product, it’s sales in the sense of understanding the emotional needs of the customer.”

For the approximately 200 agents dedicated to MWC, handling calls requires “significant product knowledge and empathy,” Pittendrigh says. “You’re dealing with anxious, depressed people who are nervous about making the call and beginning the process. Often customers won’t even understand how to frame the questions they want to ask…that makes for a very challenging conversation. These are long phone calls, three or four times the average length of calls for other clients.”

This requires training, and lots of it, especially considering that MWC’s advertisements generate more than 1 million calls per year. The Bassetts’ hands-on approach to training InPulse agents has made a world of difference, Pittendrigh says. “Lucinda is here three or four times a year, and David more often.” Since the agents work on shifts around the clock, “David will stay up training for 24 hours straight so he can talk to everyone working on his campaign.”

Those marathon sessions pay off, Bassett says, because “those dedicated senior reps are genuinely passionate about our product. On every call, they’re on a mission to help that person.” He says that belief in the mission has helped one long-time agent rack up more than $1 million in sales-”something like 20,000 units of our product.”

Pittendrigh credits the Bassetts themselves for instilling that belief and communicating their own sense that this is not just a product but a crusade. He adds, however, that a thorough understanding of the direct response world helps as well. “They do a wonderful job of managing their business,” Pittendrigh says, and their personal attention to the call center is just one example. “The longevity of this campaign is a testimony to a great strategy.”

Jack Gordon is editor-at-large for Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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